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Femme Fatale - Negotiations of tragic desire

Tragedy is the image of Fate, as comedy is of Fortune.

Susan Langer

Implenitude thus comes into play in the sense that one can never know the other, but only acknowledge her or him as embodying precisely the limit to one's knowledge, and thus one's existence; as marking an obstacle which can only be overcome by recognizing it as such. At the same time, the refusal to acknowledge the other brings a further aspect of mortality into play. For the corpses, whose production is the inevitable conclusion of a refusal to put a stop to a narrative of avoidance, only cement the fact that not seeing the other is tantamount to denying his or her humanity. The logic of denial at work can be formulated as follows. A recognition of one's own mortal implenitude is staved off by virtue of turning the other into a figure, whose function is to sustain an illusion of self-empowerment. Yet as Cavell claims, tragedy not only enacts the fatal consequences of refusing recognition of the other and of the self, but also comes to be the place where the heroes and heroines - and implicitly we as the audience - are not allowed to escape these consequences. For if the dead bodies at the end of a tragic text give evidence to the denial of the other's humanity, they also signify the death of our capacity to acknowledge, which is to say the denial of our own. In what follows I want to take the theme of fatal misrecognition, the consequences this entails, as well as the possibility of putting an end to their haunting, as a way of discussing a genre - film noir - which is usually ignored by tragic theorists. In so doing I follow the proposal made by Rita Felsky for this volume, namely to think of tragedy not just as a narrowly defined dramatic genre, but as a mode, sensibility, or structure of feeling.

As Vivian Sobchack notes, "it is now a commonplace to regard film noir during the peak years of its production as a pessimistic cinematic response to volatile social and economic conditions of the decade immediately following World War II."[iv] Indeed, the heroes of film noirrepeatedly find themselves penetrating into the darkness of a fascinating and at the same time threatening counter-world of corruption, intrigue, betrayal and decadence, from which they can only escape by death. Yet the sense of a paranoid world film noir came to transmit need not exclusively be conceived as a cinematic refiguration of the political instability of the post-war period, especially when one takes into consideration its transformation into neo-noir since the 1980s. Rather the fantasy scenarios film noir celebrates, with its protagonists fatefully entrapped in a claustrophobic world, unable to master their destinies, can just as fruitfully be understood as an example for the resonance tragic expression continues to maintain particularly in the realm of popular cinema. Indeed, if one follows Rita Felsky's suggestion that tragedy be thought of less as a genre than as an attitude, which addresses the limits of modern dreams of perfectibility, then the femme fatale can be understood as a particularly resilient contemporary example of tragic sensibility. For in the world of a film noir like Double Indemnity, where actions occur "accidentally on purpose" she functions both as the screen for fantasies of omnipotence and as the agent who, by ultimately facing the consequence of her noir actions, comes to reveal the fragility not only of any sense of omnipotence transgression of the law affords, but indeed of what it means to be human.

By offering a cross-mapping of Brian de Palma's neo-noir Femme Fatales (2002) onto what is considered the prototype, namely Billy Wilder's Double Indemnity (1944), at issue for me is the way the femme fatale emerges as the figure who comes to perform tragic acceptance in the manner Stanley Cavell understands it, namely as "an enactment not of fate but of responsibility, including the responsibility for fate."[v] For a character like Phyllis Dietrichson, this means insisting to her lover that once they have embarked on their transgressive action, "it's straight down the line for both of us." In so far as it was fate that they should have met, to play their criminal game (killing her husband, cheating his insurance company) to the end ultimately means acknowledging that each is responsible for the fatal consequences their transgression will have. What is, however, particularly significant about Billy Wilder's femme fatale is that, in contrast to the lover she ensnares, she chooses destruction at every turn, and in so doing draws attention to the question of inevitability in a tragic sequence. Given that she is radically and continuously free to make a choice against sacrificing others and ultimately herself, her embrace of death calls upon us to ask, why, if one could avoid death, one should choose it. Or - as Brian de Palma suggests in his neo-noir refiguration of Double Indemnity - what if, rather than accepting the necessity of a fatal sequence, his femme fatale Laura Ash chooses instead to change the generic rules of the fantasy scenario into one that avoids death; that translates fate into fortuitous chance. Following Stanley Cavell's suggestion that "tragedy grows from the fortunes we choose to interpret, to accept, as inevitable,"[vi] my own interest in both the classic femme fatale and her neo-noir refiguration is a two-fold engagement with the vexed interface between agency and fate. For even if in the classic film noir Phyllis Dietrichson chooses to interpret her demise as inevitable, she significantly comes to discover her freedom precisely in her embrace of the inevitability of causation. Laura Ash's gesture of tragic acceptance, in turn, means recoding causation. She comes to acknowledge the consequences of her transgressions by insisting that if one were to know the outcome of a tragic sequence in advance, one could choose not to interpret fortune as inevitable, but rather as contingent.[vii] One could gain the insight tragic sensibility affords, even while stopping, so as to see that the salvation that is needed is at hand, not in the stars.

To focus on the femme fatale of course also means introducing the question of gender difference into a discussion of tragic sensibility, in the sense that while she comes to acknowledge her responsibility for her fate, the hero she involves in her transgressive plot is characterized by the exact opposite attitude, namely a desire to stave off knowledge of his own fallibility at all costs. In the classic noir plot, the hero quite coincidentally meets the alluring femme fatale - in Double Indemnity he happens to pass by her villa and enters to ask her husband to renew a car insurance policy; in Femme Fatale he happens to notice her outside his window and decides to photograph her. Yet their meeting follows the fateful logic of a love at first sight. As Mladen Dolar notes, what seemingly happened unintentionally and by pure chance is belatedly recognized as the realization of an innermost wish: "the pure chance was actually no chance at all: the intrusion of the unforeseen turned into necessity."[viii] From the moment the hero catches sight of the femme fatale both find themselves caught in a sequence of events, which can only go one way. Both are tragically framed within a narrative of fate and can only come to accept the law of causation. Yet if the contingent turn from free choice to inevitability is aligned with a masculine gaze, appropriating a seductive feminine body, one must not overlook the fact that as bearer of the hero's look, it is the femme fatale who manipulates the outcome of their fatal meeting. It may be a coincidence that this particular man has caught her in his field of vision, but she has been expecting someone like him to do precisely that. She knows all along that she is fated, and can, therefore, turn what is inevitable into a source of power. Indeed the classic femme fatale has enjoyed such popularity because she is not only sexually uninhibited, but also unabashedly independent and ruthlessly ambitious, using her seductive charms and her intelligence to liberate herself either from the imprisonment of an unfulfilling marriage (Double Indemnity) or from partners in crime, who slap her around (Femme Fatale). Furthermore, though she gains power over the noirhero by nourishing his sexual fantasies, her own interest is only superficially erotic. Rather, she entertains a narcissistic pleasure at the deployment of her own ability to dupe the men who fall for her, even as she is merciless in manipulating them for her own ends. Duplicity thus emerges as her most seminal value, in so far as she is not simply willing to delude anyone in order to get the money and the freedom she is after, but because she will never show her true intensions to anyone, especially not the hero she has inveigled, even if this entails not only his death but also her own.

One can speak of tragic sensibility in conjunction with the femme fatale in part because she inevitably comes to recognize that her radical insistence on independence is a delusion, which was meant to stave off a recognition of her own fallibility. As Paula Rabinowitz notes, "she is false, a double-crosser, so even if she is after the goods, they will elude her."[ix] Indeed, she becomes fully tragic at the moment of anagnoresis, because it is here that she can recognize her desire for freedom as attainable only in death. At the same time, in that she uses her seductive powers to lead the noir hero from the sunlit exterior into a nocturnal world of transgressions, betrayals and, ultimately his demise, she also embodies the death drive, albeit in a highly ambivalent manner. On the one hand, one could speak of her as a figure of male fantasy, articulating both a fascination for the sexually aggressive woman, as well as anxieties about feminine domination. As Joan Copjec argues, in order to indemnify himself against the dangers of sexuality, the noir hero treats her as his double to which he surrenders the fatal enjoyment he cannot himself sustain[x] . On the other hand, the femme fatale is more than simply a symptom for the hero's erotic ambivalence. She sustains his self-delusion but also gives voice to a feminine desire that may include him, in order to attain its aim, but also exceeds his fantasy realm. In her insistence that "its straight down the line for both," she can be understood as moving towards an ethical act, meant to radically undercut the blindness of self-preservation her lover seeks to entertain at all costs.

Owing to this duplicitous function within noir narratives, Slavoj Zizek suggests that she functions as a symptom for the noir hero's fatal enjoyment in such a way that, by destroying her - Walter Neff will shoot her in the heart, Nicolas Bardo will seek to disclose her schemes - he hopes to purify himself of the desire she inspired and the guilt this entailed. In so doing, however, the noir hero not only does not recognize her as separate from him (thus denying her humanity), but also remains blind to the crypted message about the fragility of his existence she embodies for him. However, as a feminine subject taken by herself, the femme fatale assumes the death drive in a "radical, most elementary ethical attitude of uncompromising insistence, of 'not giving way'." The retreat of the noir hero from the femme fatale, Zizek adds, "is effectively a retreat from the death drive as a radical ethical stance" (156). For her to fully assume the death drive ultimately means showing that the pursuit of power and money is inevitably thwarted; as it also means acknowledging that we can never purify ourselves from the consequences of our actions, by shifting guilt onto the other. My point is that both in her function as a symptom within a male fantasy, as well as in her function as a subject beyond male fantasy, the femme fatale emerges as a figure of tragic sensibility. In the first case, she is denied humanity in the hero's fantasy scenario, whose aim is to avoid an acknowledgement of mortality and guilt, by transferring death exclusively to her body. In the latter case she is the figure who accepts her death as the logical consequences of her insistence on a radical pursuit of personal freedom - the money and death of her husband at all costs. As such she embodies tragic sensibility in the manner Rita Felsky proposes, namely as an opposition to a strand of American optimism, which sees individuals as masters of their own destiny, with a right to pursue happiness at all cost, without paying the price.

Double Indemnity has come to figure as the prototype of film noir not least of all because it performs the rhetorical duplicity connected to the femme fatale, staging Phyllis Dietrichson (Barbara Stanwyck) both as Walter Neff's (Fred MacMurray) symptom and as a female subject, who will not give way, and thus exceeds his narrative of the fatal consequences of their mutual transgression. We only hear the confession he makes to his superior Barton Keyes (Edward G. Robinson) after having shot his partner in crime; a self-justifying narrative, establishing the tragic code of failure. It begins with the statement "I killed Dietrichson. I killed him for money and for a woman. I didn't get the money and I didn't get the woman. Pity isn't it," and continues as a voice-over throughout the film. Yet, at key moments in the fatal sequence resulting in the production of two corpses, Billy Wilder also offers close-ups of Phyllis' face, visually articulating a different perspective than that of her noir lover. In so doing, Wilder brings a further duplicity into play. By encouraging Walter's vein narcissism for her own end, willingly acting as his fetish object of desire, Phyllis is complicitous with his refusal to acknowledge her. The initial scene of seduction is staged in such a manner as to set the tone for the fatal misrecognition subtending the entire noir tragedy. Billy Wilder foregrounds the fact that, because each treats the other as though they were a character in the play they are living, even while these two fantasy scenarios do not coincide, they are not actually in the presence of the other. As Walter walks through her front door, Phyllis emerges at the top of the staircase, clad only in a towel. The erotic banter that follows signals to us not only that she has been cast by him into an object of prey he will seek to win for himself, but that she knows this and will use the fact that she, in turn, has hooked him with the way she looked at him, in order to introject her scenario of death into his romantic one. Once she walks down the stairs, Wilder's camera zooms in on her feet to highlight the bracelet around her left anklet, before we see her entire body, now fully covered by a white dress, walking toward him, as she teasingly closes the top button. They have come together on a stage, where each will ultimately seek to double-cross the other, because their desire was always at cross-purposes. As Walter Neff will explain to her during their final confrontation, "we were talking about automobile insurance, only you were thinking about murder, and I was thinking about that anklet."

By invoking the code of fetishism, the camera's focus on Phyllis' anklet, offering an image of this body part as a transition between the glance at her almost naked upper body and the fully dressed woman Walter can visually enjoy without a staircase between them, foregrounds the noir hero's willful blindness. As Laura Mulvey notes, "fetishism is born out of a refusal to see, a refusal to accept the difference the female body represents for the male. These complex series of turnings away, of covering over, not of the eyes but of understanding, of fixating on a substitute object to hold the gaze, leave the female body as an enigma and threat," a symptom of anxiety, a figure on the viewer's mind screen.[xi] For the question of tragic sensibility at stake in my own argument one might add, the ambivalence of feeling Billy Wilder establishes with this initial scene of seduction is that his noir hero wants the thrill of transgression, even while refusing to understand the woman inspiring this desire as another person (and not an enigmatic figure of fantasy that will dupe and elude him). "How could I have known that murder can sometimes smell like honey-suckle," his voice-over asks, as we see him driving away from the house, "I didn't. I felt like a million." The self-blindness he thus indicates need not only be read as a belated attempt at exoneration. The fact that he has been tragically caught in the femme fatale's trap also indicates his desire to be deluded, which, put in other terms, means his desire - at all costs - not to look at her, to fixate on a substitute so as not to put himself in her presence. Even when, several days later, he comes to accept her proposition, he does so because it supports his vanity. Again Billy Wilder's mise-en-scène visualizes that tragic about his noir couple is the way they do not share a fantasy space. Phyllis has come to his apartment, using her seductive powers to win him over. After an initial kiss, Walter quite expressly disentangles himself from her arms and sets a chain of narratives in motion. He tries to assure her that, if someone who has accident insurance with his company suddenly dies, his supervisor Keyes will do everything to vilify the surviving wife. After Phyllis has responded by sketching her fantasy about a fatal accident happening to the husband who mistreats her and has written her out of his inheritance, Walter takes her into his arms, suddenly smiling as he presses her face against his shoulder, and in so doing significantly avoids looking at her. So as to underline once more that these two fated lovers are not, in fact, present to each other, Billy Wilder has the camera draw back cutting to the frame narrative, with Walter speaking his confession to Keyes into his Dictaphone. Here he explains that he accepted Phyllis' proposal not because of any erotic desire for her, nor out of pity, but rather out of professional vanity. All these years he had been wondering how he could "crook the house," but "do it smart." Phyllis entering his apartment that night was simply an embodiment of the opportunity he had been waiting for.

The kiss that seals their pact is simply an empty gesture that allows them to deny their avoidance of the other. Because Billy Wilder has also shown us that, while Walter's fetishism covers over any understanding of Phyllis' situation in favor of his hubris, the femme fatale'sgame of seduction is all about actually seeing something. After their first kiss, while Walter was telling her about a woman who ended up in prison after the death of her husband, because his insurance claim had been investigated by Keyes, Billy Wilder includes a brief close-up of her face, as Phyllis mournfully replies, "perhaps it was worth it to her." This is the first of a series of close-up shots we get of the femme fatale, visualizing that while she is playing with Walter, she is also standing emotionally apart from him. While Stanwyck's skillful performance of Phyllis' contrived gestures of seduction calls upon us to notice how ruthlessly she manipulates him, these close-ups invoke our pity, in a way her narrative about domestic malaise does not. They transmit a tragic sensibility by not only foregrounding how she is utterly alone, but by also insisting that we must do what Walter avoids in his dealings with her, as well as in his frame narrative. We must look at her, and then, because we never see the object her thoughts are directed at, follow her gaze into an abstract realm. In so doing we move away from treating her as a fetish image and instead share her mental space as one of conjectures about the inevitability of her fate. While Walter's fetishism allows him to go on doing something - hatching the perfect plot to kill Mr. Dietrichson and then, when faced with the fact that he may be found out, devising a scheme to have Phyllis take the fall for his own fallibility - these close-ups call upon us to take the opposite course. In each case we are shown Phyllis as she stops and looks, but - and therein resides the tragic sensibility of her side of the story - not at her noir lover, but rather prophetically at the consequences her deeds will have.

If one follows these close-ups, and in so doing reads Double Indemnity against the grain of Walter's self-justifying confession, the entire film can be read as a tragic scenario transforming a question of free choice - my husband's death and his money - into a recognition that all choices are forced ones, when at issue is assuming the responsibility for one's fate. After watching her husband sign the accident insurance policy, thinking it is simply a car insurance renewal, we see Phyllis leading Walter to the door, and for a brief moment, after he has left her, Billy Wilder shows us her face, glowing with anticipation at the thought that a train accident will mean twice the insurance sum. At the supermarket, where she complains to Walter how hard the waiting is for her, explaining "its so tough without you, its like a wall between us," he simply walks away from her, averting her eyes, with his own eyes covered by the shadow of his hat. We see her looking after him mournfully, aware that he is avoiding her. Most significantly the actual murder of Mr. Dietrichson is presented indexically, by virtue of the changes in her facial expression. While Walter, hiding in the backseat of the Dietrichson car, strangles the husband, Billy Wilder offers us a close-up of Phyllis' face, tracing her subtle shift in emotion, as determination initially turns to a sad acceptance of the death she has provoked, and then becomes a quiet joy that indicates her own satisfaction at the completion of her plan. Finally, the night after the inquest, when the coroner confirms her husband's death to have been an accident, she goes to visit Walter in his apartment. Realizing that Keyes is there with him, she waits behind the door. As Walter opens it so Keyes can leave, she takes hold of the doorknob, to indicate her presence to him. If in the supermarket she had tried to make Walter recognize the emotional wall separating them, the door, now literally between them, confirms her suspicion. Walter wants to put her behind him, turn his back on her. As she overhears Keyes confessing how he wants to send the police after her, we see her face registering for the first time a certain astonishment at the risk she has taken. Read as a sequence, these close-ups of Phyllis' indicate the gradual unfolding of her tragic reading of the chain of causation she has set into motion, which is to say reading these events in relation to an inevitable tragic outcome.

Walter arranges another meeting at the supermarket, to convince her that, because Keyes has figured out their scheme, he wishes "to pull out." Now she responds by taking off her sunglasses. Looking at him directly with a sober and determined gaze, she insists, as we once more see her face in close-up, "we went into this together and we're coming out in the end together. It's straight down the line for both of us, remember!" This time she is the one to turn her back on him. If his apartment door had shielded them from each other, she now shows him that such a turning away is impossible, even if the end she is speaking about is not a life with money, but death. My intuition is to read the gesture of removing sunglasses as a moment of true, if tragic, self-recognition along the lines proposed by Jacques Lacan. He argues that it is precisely in situations of false choice, with the subject forced to make a choice that is inevitable, that she or he acknowledges their irrevocable fallibity. One prototypical scene would be that of a hold-up, where faced with the choice of money or life, one can only choose the latter. Another, more poignant scene is that of revolutionary action, where the choice between freedom or death inevitably requires one to choose death, "for there, you show that you have freedom of choice."[xii] For a discussion of the tragic sensibility embodied by thefemme fatale this formulation is particularly fruitful because she consciously introduces a lethal factor into the question of choice, and in so doing undertakes an ethic act that allows her to choose death as a way of choosing real freedom; by turning the inevitability of her fate into her responsibility.

To prepare herself for her last confrontation with Walter, Phyllis places her revolver under the living room sofa, correctly assuming that he, too, will come armed. When, after implicitly threatening to kill her, he goes to the window to close it, she fires her first shot. If she had initially turned to Walter, because she wanted an unencumbered life and her husband's money, she now makes a different choice. The freedom she so unrelentlessly pursues emerges as an assumption of the death drive in its purest form, with all endeavors of avoidance dropped. As the wounded Walter walks toward her, she lowers her gun and embraces him one last time, choosing not to fire the second shot, which would save her life. Once more we see a close up of her face as she explains, "No, I never loved you nor any body else. I'm rotten to the heart. I used you just as you said, until a minute ago, when I couldn't fire that second shot. I never thought that could happen to me." One could read this as a gesture of abdication. Because at this moment she actually stops her seductive game to see both her lover and herself. She acknowledges him, by directly acknowledging how she had used him, and in so doing asks for him to attend to her. Walter, however, responds laconically, "Sorry, I'm not buying." While she suggests an exchange, which is not about economic gain but mutual recognition - "I'm not asking you to buy, just hold me close" - he holds onto his fetishistic avoidance to the end. As the culmination of all the close-ups of Phyllis Dietrichson, we see first a look of astonishment and then pain, before we hear the two shots Walter fires straight into her heart; her death, like that of her husband registered only indexically, as a facial expression. We are, thus, left with a two-fold sense of tragic sensibility. On the one hand the incompatibility between their fantasies has become cemented in her corpse, and with it Walter's tragic avoidance of self-recognition. On the other hand it is precisely the way her facial expression at the moment of death captures her final tragic acceptance that evokes our pity for Wilder's femme fatale, and endows her last image with an affective power that resonates beyond the end of the film.

Discussing Antigone's tragic insistence, by which she remains faithful not to her self-preservation, but rather to the terrible fate that has befallen her, Joan Copjec suggests "perseverance locates enjoyment, not in an unachievable past nor in an out-of-reach object, but in the body eroticized by the performance of the act."[xiii] This description of the enjoyment tragic suffering may afford offers a particularly apt point of connection between Brian de Palma's Femme Fatale and Billy Wilder's film noir, because the former begins where the latter ends. As the titles unfold on the screen we first hear Walter's final dialog with Phyllis, then see MacMurray and Stanwyck, even while, reflected on their bodies, is the image of a woman's face, looking at them. Then we simultaneously hear Phyllis' first shot, see the title of the film, Femme Fatale, even while the camera begins to pull back to show us the back of a barely clad woman (Rebecca Romijn-Stamos), reclining on a hotel bed, a cigarette in her right hand, intently watching the fatal dual between the two noir lovers. She is seeing her own face superimposed on that of the prototypical femme fatale, as though she were identifying with her, imagining for herself a similar fantasy scenario. Suddenly a man (Eriq Ebouaney) enters the room and violently turns off the T.V., just as Phyllis is confessing both her rottenness and her inability to fire the second shot. A different crime scenario is about to begin, in which Laura Ash will perform her version of the fateful woman, under the auspices of what she has just been watching on T.V. For her, and implicitly for us, the ethical persistence of Phyllis Dietrichson - her not giving way - is also what makes for her perseverance as a figure of admiration in our image repertoire. Because the story that de Palma presents to us is both a refiguration of the classic noir tale of crime, double-crossings and of the past catching up with the femme fatale, as well as a postmodern play with doublings, repetitions and temporal juxtapositions.

As Laura Ash rises from her bed and steps into her seductive clothes, a heist, taking place during the Cannes Film festival, begins, in which she and her two partners try to steal a golden snake necklace, set with diamonds, worn by the actress Veronique (Rie Rasmussen). Within the course of the night she will have betrayed her partners in crime and fled to Paris with the loot, embarking on an adventure that has recourse to all the paraphernalia of the classic noir narrative. She will be mistaken for another woman, Lily, who has mysteriously disappeared. When, in her effort to get a new passport, so as to flee from the men she has cheated, one of them catches up with her at a Sheraton Hotel and throws her over the railing in front of her room, Lily's parents, who have been following her, bring her to their daughter's apartment, where she will watch her double commit suicide, take her passport and plane ticket, and, endowed with a new identity, meet a millionaire on her flight to the United States. As his wife, she will return to Paris with him seven years later, and, because he has become the american Ambassador, a former paparazzi, Nicolas Bardo (Antonio Banderas), is hired to photograph her, setting the final cycle of her tragic trajectory in motion. Seeing her image on a billboard, the two men Laura betrayed have a chance at finding her, so she seduces the photographer responsible for her fate, arousing pity in him by playing to his sense of guilt. In so doing she repeats the actions that brought about the consequences haunting her in the first place. She instigates a new cycle of betrayals and false identities, frames him as her kidnapper, and hopes to take the ransom money from her husband, so as, once again, to disappear. On a bridge in Paris, she repeats to Nicolas what she had seen on the T.V. screen just before embarking on the heist in Cannes, confessing that she is a bad girl, "rotten to the heart." Yet in contrast to Phyllis, she is not yet willing to abdicate. Instead she insists that, because she was given a second chance when Lily killed herself, she continues to believe she can outwit her fate. She convinces Nicolas to pose as her kidnapper during the money exchange, yet because he double-crosses her and tries to disclose her real motives to Watts, she shoots first her husband and then her lover. In her refiguration of the fatal dual at the end of Double Indemnity, she is able to fire a second shot, straight into Nicolas' heart, which is to say, in contrast to Phyllis she doesn't see and stop. Her repetition compulsion instead leads to the inevitability of demise inscribed into noir's tragic plot. She is tossed over the railing of the bridge by her irate partners, who have finally caught up with her, while the dying Nicolas smiles as the punishment of his femme fatale.

As Schopenhauer notes, in moments of tragic catastrophe, the conviction becomes more distinct to us than ever that life is a bad dream, from which we have to wake up.[xiv] Twice in the film Laura's partner admonishes her to wake up, first after he turns off the T.V. set in Cannes and slaps her in the face, and then, on the bridge, just before he throws her to her death. She does finally wake up, and we discover that the cycle of repetitions that set in with Lily's suicide was, in fact, a prophetic dream, in which Laura reworked her anxieties about her past catching up with her. Everything that occurs to her, once she assumes the identity of her double Lily, proves to be nothing other than a fantasmatic refiguration of events she had experienced prior to her fall over the railing at the Sheraton. Yet significant for my discussion of what it might mean to leave a scene tragedy is that Brian de Palma has his heroine wake up to a situation where she can choose to interpret her fortune not as fatal inevitability, but as fortuitous opportunity. As in the first part of the film, she is given a second chance. Yet, having seen the consequences of the tragic sequence she set in motion with her initial double-crossing, she now chooses to see and to stop, and in so doing circumvents the compulsion to repeat that produced these fatal consequences in the first place. As Stanley Cavell notes, in tragedy "people in pain are in our presence, but we are not in their presence. Tragedy shows we are responsible for the death of others even when we have not murdered them."[xv] Laura, waking up from her nightmare to discover herself lying in the bathtub of her double, finds herself in precisely such a situation. As in the first part of the film, she initially hides in the shadow of a closet to watch Lily, who has suddenly returned to her apartment, try to shoot herself. Now, however, she no longer maintains the attitude of a spectator of tragedy, keeping herself in the dark and treating Lily as a theatrical character she can watch with impunity. Instead, by stepping out of the closet, leaving her position of hiddenness, silence and separation and putting herself into the presence of her double, she embraces the chance to suspend all further tragedy.

By revealing herself to Lily, she refigures the fatal dual at the end of Double Indemnity. Like Walter, she takes the gun from the woman she has been treating as a fetish in her prophetic dream of fatal hubris, only now she offers Lily the choice Phyllis was never given - death or survival. Initially she had denied acknowledging Lily, by staying in the dark without interfering in her suicide. Now, Laura acts upon the pity and terror she has been witnessing; pity for the suffering of Lily, and terror at the horrible things that will happen if she doesn't stop this tragic sequence. Rather than casting herself once again as a femme fatale, so as to continue living her life as a noir narrative, she does what is impossible in a tragic performance, she intervenes. Precisely because Laura acknowledges the other woman as separate from herself (and not a fetish body eroticized by the performance of a fatal act), she can put herself into Lily's presence and inhabit the same space as she. This is, of course, the act of abdication Cavell calls salvation. If Laura's life as femme fatale began when she chose to blur the boundary between herself and Billy Wilder's Phyllis Dietrichson, and if she came to sustain this self-fashioning by repeating the confusion between self and an appropriated image (treating Lily as a fictional figure, whose identity she can assume), her abdication as femme fatale occurs when, by no longer avoiding the separateness of her double, she can actually face Lily as a vulnerable woman, in need of being saved. What she relinquishes with this abdication is her fantasy of unrestrained independence and power. Yet the salvation gained is one of real difference. After Laura has imposed a forced choice upon Lily, because all she can do is choose life, events from the prophetic dream are repeated, yet with a radically different outcome. The deaths of all three main female characters - herself, her double, and the actress Veronique, who helped her double-cross her partners and has been fending the diamonds for her - are put on hold.

The question of turning tragic inevitability into contingency is, however, also brought into play by Brian de Palma on the very level of the image of the femme fatale, in that he self-consciously recites the fateful logic of love at first sight. After having escaped from Cannes to Paris, Laura meets her friend Veronique in front of a church in Belleville, to get a new passport from her. To her horror she finds that Nicolas, sitting on his balcony on one side of the square, has begun to take her photograph. She expresses her frustration at the fact that she is not in control of who can take her picture, not least of all because this threatens to undermine her successful escape from her past. This sense of vulnerability then returns in her dream sequence refigured as the photograph, taken surreptitiously by Nicolas, only to appear on billboards all over Paris, resulting in the production of her husband's, her lover's and her own corpse. By having his film end with one final image of his femme fatale Laura, Brian de Palma returns to the question of pictures taken against the will of the model in the concluding sequence of the film, only now he transforms a gesture of fetishism (with its foregrounding of substitution) into that of aesthetic completion. Nicolas has been working on a photomontage of the square outside his apartment in Belleville. As he explains to his agent, when asked for a photograph of the American ambassador's camera shy wife in Laura's prophetic dream, he still needs one more piece, namely of a side-walk café. As he is speaking, he is also watching Veronique and a blond woman, dressed in white, sitting at the very table, of which he still needs to take the perfect photograph. In the final sequence of the film, Brian de Palma repeats this clandestine meeting between Veronique and her friend, only now we recognize Laura as the woman she is meeting.

After Veronique, having handed over an aluminum brief-case containing the money she has made fending off the stolen diamonds, has walked away from Laura, Nicolas begins photographing her. Within moments a scene from her prophetic dream is replayed before eyes. Veronique, who had entered her apartment building, runs back onto the street, fleeing from the men they double-crossed, as a truck begins to turn around the corner, and Laura, who has gotten up from her chair, fears that the tragic death of her friend she dreamed is about to take place. Yet because she intervened in the life of her double, a significant detail has been added to this repetition. To signal the beginning of her new life, Lily had given the truck driver, taking her to the airport, a crystal hanging on a necklace. As he drives toward Veronique, the sunlight that has just re-emerged from behind thick clouds, is reflected in this small jewel, briefly blinding both Nicolas, who is forced to put down his camera, and as well as the driver, who shields his eyes with his hand, even while flooding Laura's body in gleaming brightness. Ironically, because for a brief moment the key players in the scene are forced to stop what they are doing, the result is a compelling moment of tragedy averted. Instead of driving over Veronique's body, which one of the gangsters has pushed onto the street, the truck hits the two men instead. As Laura is in turn herself pushed to the ground by a passer-by, Nicolas, who has relinquished his position of spectator and decided to intervene in the scene taking place before his eyes, runs to her assistance. This, too, is love at first sight; only both have a sense of déjà vu. As he takes Laura into his arms he asks, "You look so familiar. Haven't we met before?" and she responds, "Only in my dreams."

Over a close-up of Nicolas' puzzled face, Brian de Palma superimposes the photograph that completes the photo-montage: Laura, holding her briefcase, as it ricochets back the ray of light the crystal in the window of the truck has cast on her, with the driver using his hand to shield his eyes from the glaring light, while she is arrested in a gesture of anticipation. At the moment that Nicolas had pressed the trigger anything could have happened. The photograph thus displays a moment of utter contingency, when nothing is yet decided and everything pertaining to the question of death or survival, loss or gain, is still open. As the camera moves back we realize that this image of Laura - seeing and stopping - is the navel of the photomontage, its source of refracted illumination, not least of all because fate and chance are held in balance. As Cavell notes, tragedy is about a particular death, which is neither natural nor accidental. Even though death is inflicted, "it need not have happened. So a radical contingency haunts every story of tragedy." At the same time, he continues, a radical necessity also haunts every story of tragedy, so that it is precisely the murky interface between contingency and necessity, which produces "events we call tragic: necessary, but we do not know why; avoidable, but we do not know how."[xvi] If the perseverance of the final image of Phyllis Dietrichson in Double Indemnity resides in the fact that she has come to accept as her responsibility the fate of death she did not know how to avoid, the final image of Laura Ash in Femme Fatale offers a difference conjunction between the accidental and the inevitable. If an avoidance of tragedy hinges on recognizing that to be hidden, silent and not in the presence of the other is for us a question of choice, then one could also step out into the sunlight.

University of Zurich


[i] Stanley Cavell, "The Avoidance of Love: A Reading of King Lear," in Must we mean what we say (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press), p. 310.

[ii] Cavell, "Avoidance," p. 279.

[iii] As Stanley Cavell, "Avoidance," argues, an acceptance of human limitedness implies recognizing, "There is nothing and we know there is nothing we can do. Tragedy is meant to make sense of that condition," p. 330.

[iv] Vivian Sobchack, "Lounge Time. Postwar Crises and the chronotope of Film Noir," in Nick Browne ed., Refiguring American Film Genres. Theory and History (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1998), p. 130.

[v] Cavell, "Avoidance," p. 310.

[vi] Cavell, "Avoidance," p. 318.

[vii] The American trailer to Brian de Palma's film used the following question as tagline: "If you could see your destiny, if you had a chance to change it, could you escape your past?"

[viii] Mladen Dolar, "The Object Voice," in Sic 1. Gaze and Voice as Love Objects (Durham: Duke University Press 1996), p. 131.

[ix] Paula Rabinowitz, Black & White & Noir. America's Pulp Modernism (New York: Columbia University Press 2002), p. 143.

[x] Joan Copjec, "The Phenomenal nonphenomenal: Private Space in Film Noir," in Shades of Noir, ed. by Joan Copjec (London/New York. Verso 1993), p. 193.

[xi] Laura Mulvey, Fetishism and Curiosity (London: BFI 1996), p. 64.

[xii] Jacques Lacan, The Four Fundamental Concepts of Psycho-Analysis. Ed. by Jacques-Alain Miller, trans. by Alan Sheridan (New York/London: Norton 1973), p. 213.

[xiii] Joan Copjec, "The Tomb of Perseverance: On Antigone," in Giving Ground. The Politics of Propinquity, ed. by Joan Copjec and Michael Sorkin (London/ New York: 1999), p. 263.

[xiv] Arthur Schopenhauer, The World as Will and Idea, vol. 3, trans. by R. Haldane (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul 1983), p. 213.

[xv] Cavell, "Avoidance," p. 332.

[xvi] Cavell, "Avoidance," p. 341.

© Elisabeth Bronfen 2003